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An Arch Look
The St. Louis You Don't Know

By Tim Page
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 2, 2000

If you have ever been to St. Louis at all, it was probably to change planes. Lambert International Airport is the hub and hive of Trans World Airlines, and thousands of travelers squeeze through one or another of its pores every day. Indeed, Lambert is among the busiest airports in the country--too busy, in the opinion of most St. Louisans--but woefully little of this traffic finds its way to the stately and gracious city some 15 minutes to the west.

Traveling through St. Louis was once more glamorous. At the turn of the 20th century, Union Station, a sweeping Romanesque structure at the corner of 18th and Market streets, was the largest and most populous railroad terminal in the world. St. Louis was coming off some glory years--it had recently been the fourth or fifth largest metropolis in America (the exact rank remains subject to debate, mostly within city limits)--and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, remembered as the "World's Fair of 1904," was already in the planning. (Meet me in Saint Lewis, Louie.)

Then as now, you could get anywhere from St. Louis, but, had you stopped to investigate your immediate whereabouts, you would have found more than a line of sunburned cabbies waiting for a fare. Rather, the area surrounding Union Station was peopled with the whole untidy panoply of human experience.

But the past century has been particularly rough on St. Louis, which has suffered through floods, tornadoes and an even more disastrous succession of civic choices. Urban renewal policies, however well-intentioned, plunged federal highways through historic neighborhoods, and suburban flight was so extreme that many area residents have ventured downtown only with the hopes of watching Mark McGwire swat yet another hardball into the bleachers. In 1988, a gripping, desolate postmodern thriller by Jonathan Franzen called St. Louis "The Twenty-Seventh City"; today, its population ranking among U.S. cities is 50.

It's all a shame, for St. Louis is a poetic place, and its languor and present-day quietude only add to its appeal. Sometimes I am reminded of Brigadoon: When I am within the city borders, I cannot quite imagine the rush and whirl of the outside world, and when I am away, the easy friendliness and slow pace of St. Louis seem something of a dream. A pleasant dream, and one in which more visitors should indulge.

Even now, only a month after I moved back East, memories of a sunny Sunday stroll down Euclid Avenue have taken on a sensitive-greeting-card soft focus. Most St. Louisans attend religious services every week--self-described radicals as well as conservatives--and so it is likely that the street will be almost empty until 11. But the fanciful and vine-covered mansions with their towering old trees from the 19th century will prove good company for a while. Later on, Left Bank Books (a splendid indie that sells both new and secondhand books) will open up, as will several antiques stores, and friends will gather in one of the Euclid Avenue sidewalk cafes, discussing, in safely-far-away terms, the troubles of the outside world.

There is an abundant stock of history in St. Louis. Mound-dwelling people lived in and around St. Louis upward of 4,000 years ago. The city was founded in 1764 as a fur trading post by Pierre Laclede and Rene Auguste Chouteau and was named for King Louis IX of France, the patron saint of then-reigning Louis XV. In 1804, St. Louis was chosen as the site for the official formalization and implementation of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon and France. By 1826, the Jefferson Barracks had been established as the primary post for military troops heading west.

Throughout most of the 19th century, St. Louis maintained its standing as a frontier town--the last outpost of European culture before the unknown hazards and promises of a journey into territory still being charted. Kansas City, just across the state, is clearly a "Western" town today, having more in common with Denver than with Chicago. But St. Louis stands by itself--certainly not "Eastern" but not quite stereotypically "Midwestern," either. It has been called the northernmost Southern city in the nation and, as generalizations go, that's a fairly good one. But there are complications.

To understand St. Louis's character it may be helpful, for a moment, to contemplate the motley eight states surrounding Missouri. (I have found this a surprisingly challenging parlor game, and not one Easterner in 10 will be able to name them all.) Outsiders are inevitably surprised that Oklahoma and Illinois, Arkansas and Nebraska, Kansas and Kentucky, and Tennessee and Iowa, with their distinct traditions and histories, all border the same state. When you add in the French and African American cultures that have migrated up the Mississippi River from New Orleans over the past two centuries, you arrive at a diverse and variegated city.

It is not, however, much of a melting pot. The downtown area is almost deserted after office hours--this, despite the Gateway Arch, a multitude of civic revival projects and a nascent loft district (complete with chic nightclubs that have begun to attract a late-night audience). It used to be city legend that if you waited long enough, everybody you knew would walk by the corner of Grand and Olive; nobody would make that claim today.

The city is mostly poor, while some of the suburbs are extravagantly wealthy. The sad fact is that the farther one ventures due west from downtown St. Louis in the evenings, the more activity one will find.

The county is plush and pleasant--the proverbial "good place to live"--but not especially interesting, while the city of St. Louis, for all of its struggles, retains the power to haunt. It sometimes seems pure Dreiser, with the expansive grandeur of its lush boulevards (among the widest in the country); its perpetually stayed locomotive cars set against a backdrop of steel, gravel and the open sky; and its incalculable number of empty storefronts. It has been a long time between financial booms, and there are a disproportionate number of old factories and office buildings still standing. In St. Louis, it is yet possible to sense the ghosts of another America.

For our purposes, we shall begin with the Gateway Arch, which was built in 1965 directly overlooking the Mississippi, on the site of the former old city of St. Louis. My own experience with the Arch might be likened to the growing appreciation I've felt for the Washington Monument. Before moving to the Washington area, I thought I'd known the monument rather well from its myriad representations through books and the mass media. But it took some time to appreciate its stark and radical beauty, its pure, superlative sense of place.

And so with the Arch. Many have caught a vision of the late Finnish architect Eero Saarinen's stainless steel masterpiece while flying over Midwestern flatlands, for it is clearly identifiable from seven miles up. But you cannot fully comprehend this 630-foot structure without knowing its various reflected skyscapes--winter moonlight, say, or a bright October afternoon, when it is spangled with brilliant autumn colors. I don't necessarily recommend a trip to the top--if you suffer from claustrophobia, the slow, crowded catapult ride in a bathysphere-like container, knee to knee with four other people, will make you miserable, and even the most unflappable may flap. But an unhurried meditation beneath the Arch is an essential part of any visit.

A mile south of downtown lies Soulard, a neighborhood where one may still find some of the "river city" culture that played such an important part in the shaping of St. Louis. There has been a public market at the corner of Lafayette and Seventh streets since 1779, and the housing stock is among the oldest in the city. In the past 15 years or so, traditionally working-class Soulard has been filled with welcoming, unpretentious restaurants and watering holes, and it is now a choice residential district for young St. Louis families. For those in the spirit, a pub crawl is warmly recommended. And don't forget Mardi Gras, when Soulard is swimming in plastic beads, bizarre parades and cheerful chaos.

Driving from Soulard to the Central West End is rather akin to commuting between New Orleans and New York in the space of 10 minutes. The Central West End was developed almost 100 years ago and today is a charismatic mixture of spacious residences, good restaurants and unusual stores, with an air of comfortable, affluent bohemia. Surrounded by Maryland and McPherson avenues, Kingshighway Boulevard and Taylor Street, you will find an almost unbroken cluster of extraordinary mansions, some of them 7,000 square feet or larger and a few with ballrooms on the top floor. This is one of the most distinguished and well-preserved residential areas in the United States.

Until the years after World War II, the Central West End was home to the richest and most powerful St. Louisans, so it should come as no surprise that there are several renowned art institutions nearby in Forest Park. The Saint Louis Art Museum began life as the Palace of Fine Arts and is the only surviving exhibition hall from the 1904 World's Fair. Located southwest in the park, it contains more than 30,000 works of art, ranging from ancient mummies to Picasso and Mondrian. The Missouri History Museum offers music, videos and hands-on exhibits as well as the expected paintings, photographs and documents.

Forest Park itself is large (a third bigger than New York's Central Park), fastidiously kept, reasonably safe and decidedly handsome; a long stroll is recommended, particularly in the fall or spring. In addition to the attractions above, it possesses an excellent zoo, dozens of tennis courts, three golf courses, several lakes, a planetarium and science center, an outdoor concert arena and woodland enough for some genuine in-city solitude. It is in the midst of a $43 million renovation, and the name of the sponsoring organization says it all--"Forest Park Forever."

Because I enjoy a continuing association with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, I will limit myself to observing that the group is regularly judged among the best in the nation. The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has distinguished itself with new and venturesome material, and always presents its offerings in English. The Fox Theatre offers ballet and musical performances, but the hall itself--a sumptuously gaudy and deliciously overblown cinema palace from the 1920s--is worth exploring regardless of the headliner.

St. Louis is a big sports town, and you can always catch a game (this should really go without saying, and almost did). But don't forget the several attractions that actually deserve the overused word "unique"--notably the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog and the City Museum, with a walk-through whale and outdoor statue of a high-heeled shoe made up of--what else?--spray-painted high-heeled shoes. Kids love the City Museum. The Black World History Wax Museum, the only of its kind in the Midwest, is devoted to famous African Americans from Missouri, while the Scott Joplin House was once home to ragtime's greatest composer. The Joplin House is in what has become a blighted neighborhood, and you may wish to take a cab. (These must be summoned, by the way; outside of downtown and a couple of scattered stands, taxis are very difficult to find.)

Joplin is hardly the only significant musician St. Louis has produced; others include soprano Helen Traubel, jazz-age legend Josephine Baker, trumpeter Miles Davis and rock pioneer Chuck Berry. St. Louis writers have included Eugene Field, Kate Chopin, William Gass and the vastly undervalued literary critic Paul Elmer More, among many others. A single neighborhood, the Central West End, was an early home to T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams and William S. Burroughs, and if you can think of a more divergent set of 20th-century writers emanating from a few square blocks, your memory is better than mine. Maybe there was something in the air.

St. Louis weather has had a bad rap, by the way. Summers can indeed be meltingly hot and humid, despite relief from a sultry, replenishing breeze that never quite goes away. But the rest of the year is better: St. Louis is about a five-hour drive from both Chicago to the north and Memphis to the south, and local lore has it that every new winter will follow the weather pattern of one or the other of these two cities.

For the past few years, Memphis must have been the model, as sunny, 70-degree days are now commonplace in St. Louis after February, a time when Chicago is regularly frozen in. Still, there was a freak winter storm in mid-March this year that left ice crystals on flowering magnolias, a vision out of Magritte. (Unless you are visiting in deep winter, it is wise to take along some allergy medication, for St. Louis has an extraordinary density of molds, tree, grass and weed pollens, and has been called the worst city for allergies in the country.)

The seasons of choice are fall and spring--long, luxuriant and, on the best days, imbued with a cool, timeless lambency that is almost unbelievably beautiful. Summer days take on a near-tropical quality--an illusion enhanced by the potted palms set along Euclid Avenue during the warmer months. The summer thunderstorms are magnificent--intricate, skeletal lightning flashing through dramatic skies to the accompaniment of what sounds like demolition blasts resounding through an iron foundry. When these tempests are finally expended, there is usually a cool spell, with the promise of another fine day to explore St. Louis.

Tim Page, who covered music for The Washington Post, spent a year in Missouri as artistic adviser and creative chair for the St. Louis Symphony. He will return soon to The Post as a culture writer.

DETAILS: St. Louis

GETTING THERE: Southwest offers direct flights from BWI to St. Louis for about $178 round trip, with restrictions. Leaving from Union Station, Amtrak crosses the Midwest Corridor to St. Louis for $127 to $198 one way; travel time is about 24 hours, but with the Chicago layover adds up to almost 30 hours. As for driving, expect at least 13 hours on the road to cover the 821 miles.

GETTING AROUND: While it is not strictly necessary to have a car--MetroLink runs from the airport to University City, the Central West End and Downtown, and buses serve other areas--access to an automobile will vastly simplify your stay. Fortunately, rental car rates are among the least expensive in the nation.

WHERE TO STAY: First of all, don't stay downtown. There are some quality hotels in the area, notably the Adam's Mark (Fourth and Chestnut streets, 800-444-2326; rates from $99 to $220), which is in the shadow of the Arch. But there is little to see or do after dark, unless you want to go to Al's or Tony's (see below) or visit the tourist-clotted Laclede's Landing, a sort of Disneyfied "Olde St. Louis," complete with restored cobblestone streets, indulgent bars and an overwhelming aura of artifice.

The Hyatt Regency St. Louis, grafted onto the old Union Station (One St. Louis Union Station, 314-231-1234; from $119) in the 1980s, is a good option, as is the luxurious Ritz Carlton in the suburb of Clayton (100 Carondelet Plaza, 800-241-3333, from $129). If you aren't terribly fancy, try at the Best Western Inn on the Park (4630 Lindell Blvd., 314-367-7500; from $69), in the heart of historic Central West End.

WHERE TO EAT: St. Louis is an excellent eating city. Tony's (410 Market St.; Italian dinner for two is $120), the famous five-star restaurant, is both engagingly friendly and overwhelmingly formal. The specialty is haute Italian cuisine, replete with luscious sauces. Make reservations early, dress well and order something that can be flambeed by your tuxedo-clad waiter.

Al's (1200 N. First St; $23-$48 for entrees) is a carnivore's paradise--a splendid steakhouse in an eerily deserted area just above Laclede's Landing (travel by cab). The interior's soft lighting and plush red leather banquettes will remind you of a fancy '60s nightclub, the sort of place where Darrin Stevens might have taken an advertising client long ago.

Harvest (1059 S. Big Bend; entrees start at $17), a couple of miles outside the city, offers creative regional cooking at its most inspired, from the Missouri-grown greens to the buttermilk-fried onion rings.

O'Connell's (4650 Shaw Ave; entrees $4-$10) is a gregarious pub that serves celebrated hamburgers. It tends to be very crowded on weekend nights and reservations are not accepted; go early if you can. There are several worthy restaurants clustered near the corner of Euclid and McPherson streets in the Central West End: Duff's, Cafe Balaban, Zoe and Llewelyn's, among others.

St. Louis pizza is one source of local pride that is incomprehensible to outsiders. Square-shaped, thin-crusted and bedecked in a sticky cheese food called Provel, it is enough to put hair on your teeth. The popular chain is Imo's, with dozens of branches, and many love it. (Others, less kind, have suggested a wicked advertising campaign--"You Can't Spell 'Imodium' without I.M.O.") If you really need pizza, stop in at Rossino's (204 N. Sarah St.; $10-$15) where they make an excellent pie and will hold the Provel if you insist. Insist.

WHAT TO DO:

* Saint Louis Art Museum (1 Fine Arts Dr., 314-721-0072). Free.

* Missouri History Museum (5700 Lindell Blvd., 314-746-4599). No fee for the permanent collection, but there is a charge for special exhibitions.

* Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (Powell Symphony Hall, 718 N. Grand Blvd., 314-533-2500). Tickets range from $10 to $100.

* Fox Theatre (527 N. Grand Blvd., 314-534-1111). Ticket prices vary.

* American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog (1721 S. Mason Rd., Des Peres, 314-821-3647). Admission: $3.

* City Museum (701 N. 15th St.; 314-231-2489). Admission: $6.

* Black World History Wax Museum (2505 St. Louis Ave., 314-241-7057). Admission: $4.

* Scott Joplin House (2658 Delmar Blvd.; 314-340-5790). Admission: $2.

INFORMATION: St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, 800-916-0040, www.explorestlouis.com.

--Tim Page

© 2000 The Washington Post Company